Tokyo, Day One
We hoped to take a guided tour for our first day in Tokyo. Unfortunately all the tour companies were shut down because of a marathon being run through the city. So we decided to strike out on our own. Armed with a map and detailed directions to reach a historical portion of the city, we headed to Asakusa.
And wouldn’t you know the first thing we encountered when we climbed out of the subway was … the marathon!
We must have looked a little lost because we were “helped” almost immediately by a fellow who was booking rickshaw rides. We decided to go for it. Even though there is a lot of English signage, it’s still easy to get turned around in the narrow lanes. Besides, the rickshaw came with seat warmers and a couple blankets and it’s cold here today.
This is Sato, our rickshaw driver. He kept apologizing for his English, but it certainly beat our Japanese.
The first lane he took us down featured geisha restaurants. The common misconception is that geisha is synonymous with “prostitute.” In the past, their role was more like a top tier courtesan, an educated, talented woman who could entertain in the parlor as well as the bedroom. Today geishas perform traditional music and dance and regale audiences with stories.
But geishas aren’t the only storytellers. The gentleman in the pink jacket was holding court using a series of pictures to tell a story to the assembled crowd. Of course, we didn’t understand a word, but he produced sound effects and used different voices for each character in his tale. It was quite charming. I found myself wishing American society could slow down long enough to listen to a story told by the wayside.
There was plenty of entertainment on the street. Just outside the Sensoji Temple area, a fellow with a monkey on a long leash had amassed a good sized crowd.
But we didn’t spend long watching his antics. The Sensoji Temple was the main reason we came to this area of the city and I was anxious to see it.
I’ve always been fascinated by sacred places, whether it’s Westminster Abbey or the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains. There’s something special about a space where countless people have prayed over the centuries. It’s as if the very earth under your feet is saturated with longing, with hope, with yearning for a connection with the Eternal.
Built in the seventh century, the Sensoji Temple has gathered just such a spiritual patina. I’m always concerned, when I visit a sacred place that I not be a distraction to the worshippers. The last thing I want to be is voyeuristic. So I didn’t take any pictures inside the structure, and I didn’t press close to the shrine. But like the beautiful cathedrals of Europe, the interior is highly embellished, adorned with gold leaf and crowded with beautiful things, whose significance I didn’t understand, but whose esthetics I admired.
We followed our exploration of the temple area with lunch at a restaurant where there were no English menus. Fortunately, they used pictures to make it easy for us to order. I had a truly delicious scallops, veggies and noodles soup.
I’ve wandered the capitals of Europe on my own without a second thought. As we retraced our steps back to our hotel, I figured out why I feel more unsure of myself here. For one, I have no Japanese beyond “arigatou” and the people are so unfailingly polite, I’m worried about giving offense.
For another, I am the “Other” here. Children stare at me and I wonder if they’ve ever met any non-Asians. I smile back at them to let them know I’m ok.
Being a member of minority is a rare experience for me. And I think it’s healthy. It gives me a fresh appreciation for how American minorities feel.
Guess this is what they mean when they say travel is “broadening.” Today certainly gave me plenty to think about.
Have you done any travel that challenged you, that sent your imagination down new paths?